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Thanking whom?

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite national holiday. Family, food, gratitude…what’s not to like?

Just as the meal is slightly more complicated for those of us who don’t eat meat, the holiday is a little more gnarly for those who don’t believe in G-d. We agnostics and atheists have all of the believers’ joy in what we have, as well as the simultaneous sad remembering of those who do not, but we don’t have anyone to thank. That’s a loss; religion as I’ve seen it practiced — my wife is an Orthodox Jew — sanctifies the everyday, which leads us to care ever more for the world we’ve been given and our companions in it.

I don’t have that sense of sanctity because I lack the sense of a Sanctifier. I am left believing that while the Renaissance distinction between Fortuna and Virtus is useful in some instances, in the final accounting when you’re stripped down to bare wood, even your virtues are accidents. If you hadn’t been born to those particular parents, in that particular time and place, with a body that can do this but not that, with the set of experiences that happened to form you, you wouldn’t have the virtues you claim as your own. It’s all Fortuna. I happened to have won the lottery: I have a healthy family, work I love, water, and a roof. I have no One to thank, but that does not make me less appreciative of what is spread on my table and aware that it could be overturned tomorrow.

I’m fine with that, especially since without Anyone to thank for singling me out for a happy life, I also don’t have Anyone to blame for leaving so many behind. That’s a more gnarly question than how to make a good vegetarian stuffing.

Happy Thanksgiving to us all.

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4 Responses to “Thanking whom?”

  1. Christmas is our equilivant in Ireland – food and family and complicated by God for agnostics. It is my favourite holiday and will continue to enjoy it even with disbelief. Without someone to thank you can still be grateful and appreciate what you have. Maybe even more so than the religious as it is though though rather than a reflexive gesture.

    Happy Thanksgiving!


  2. It’s always been pretty obvious for me: I’m interested in thanking the many people, present and not present, who made it possible for me to have a holiday filled with food, family and cheer. It is the same obviousness that makes me marvel at catholic weddings where everyone sits and raptly listens to a single, celibate man lecture everyone about marriage. “Ask grampa Joe!” I find myself thinking. “Surely he knows more than this guy.” YMMV.

  3. It’s a 2-way street, this sanctification business. If religion sanctifies the everyday, then the everyday also sanctifies the religious (person). For atheists (such as I) who also think they’re ethically/ morally good persons, a truly religious holiday can prompt tears: we have no mirror. If in addition you have self-esteem issues, then …well, it gets tricky. And if you have a critical mind and question mirrors in the first place it gets even trickier. You end up knowing it’s mostly psychology, and then you have to deal with your own private demons – which refuse to be exorcised by any public ritual.

    When I lived in the States I always loved Thanksgiving because it wasn’t religious and it simply allowed for decent behaviour without voodoo overtones. You could volunteer at a homeless dinner, or share your bounty with friends at home. Christmas is trickier to extricate from the religious baggage (and for me personally it’s tricky because it’s also my birthday 2 days later: talk about competition, …for which I’m not fitted).

    The idea that a child should lead us, that we should look at the world with newborn eyes, and that at the same time that child (“the Child”) should be “the king of all creation” (i.e., a newborn child as paradigm) is an idea I find disruptive (in all the whizbang techno-economic senses of the word – i.e., revolutionary), and worthy of respect. But oh how I hate that holiday all the same, for its encrustation with shopworn truisms around the whole “fellow man” BS and what often reveals itself as superficial religious sanctity.

    And so back to Thanksgiving, which has no organized religious backing. For that, I gratefully give thanks. Don’t underestimate the power of ritual if it’s cosmopolitan or universal but manages to tie you into good behaviour (like expressing thankfulness), and trust me: if you didn’t have it (as we in Canada don’t – our Thanksgiving in October on Columbus Day doesn’t cut it), you’d have to invent it.

    But, oh wait… you already have! After all, you’re American, and inventive by (intelligent or not) design!

  4. I’ve always enjoyed T-giving because have always thought of it as completely non-religious. AND no presents to buy! So thanks David (NOT) for complicating it by pointing out that in theory we’d have to believe there was something or someone to thank.

    My not only vegetarian but gluten-free chipotle-shiitake cornbread stuffing and mushroom gravy rocked by the way. Everyone said so.

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